«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
Our reading aligns with critical commentary about themes of death and mourning in Wilbur by scholars like Philip White, Alan Sullivan, and John Gery, who collectively counter Randall Jarrell's famous criticism that Wilbur "never goes far enough" in addressing what Gery calls "the dangers of the modern condition" (Jarrell qtd. in Gery 113; Gery 113). Although critics like Edgecombe may find Wilbur's poem falling into self-centered sentimentality, I suggest that Wilbur engages his readers' emotions in order to argue about the conflicted nature of human feelings, and how they respond complexly to ambiguities of presence and absence (80). The philosophical thrust of Wilbur's reflection on the varieties of human presences and absences exceeds merely clichéd sentimentality.
Indeed the emotional images that Edgecombe critiques—i.e. "the description of the boy's eye... and the measurement of the single tear (with its effect of squeezed-out emotion)"—may be more than merely sentimental in that it may convey a complex response to loss and trauma (80). Wilbur's image aligns with the poetic styles that, according to Jeffrey Sychterz, may facilitate important philosophical work and psychological healing for poets and readers responding to trauma. Sychterz explains that "[p]oetic devices" like "imagery locate meaning in the epiphanic moment of the poem's speaking, rather than deferring it through the causal chain of plot" (144). Lyric poetry like Wilbur's "Boy at the Window" relies primarily on fragmented, "imagistic" style and the "heft" of words' "sound and feel" for meaning rather than on a narrative sequence of events (Sychterz 144). Sychterz explains how these lyric elements mirror traumatic memory, which "notably invoke[s] a lyric mode of meaning" according to posttraumatic stress counselor Judith Herman's account of its "vivid sensations and images" that are often "fragmentary" and "without context" (145; Herman qtd. Sychterz 145). Context seems only minimally present in Wilbur's poem—we have no explicit account of the boy building the snowman or of who the boy is specifically. This lack of context and of individual details about the boy—who has no name—may make universalizing appeals to readers not unlike the universalizing rhetoric of Dickinson's poem. The fragmented pieces of information about the boy's feelings that the poem does describe invite us to participate in fulfilling the poem's coherence, at least by identifying ourselves with the boy's affective plight if not also by imagining details implied by the poem, like the boy building the snowman. Although Wilbur's poem does not seem to describe a memory of the kind of traumatic experience of extremity that Carolyn Forché commemorates in Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, Wilbur's lyrical illustrations of emotion seem to share a similar form with traumatic memory.
Cathy Caruth's definition of trauma as an essentially "unknown" experience helps clarify how the boy's personifying view of the snowman relates to trauma (4). In Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Caruth theorizes from Freud that trauma "is a wound inflicted... upon the mind" by "an event that... is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again, repeatedly, in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor" (4). Trauma repeats itself in memories, "return[ing] to haunt the survivor later on" because "of its very unassimilated nature" (Caruth 4). Thus trauma "is always a story of a wound... that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available" (Caruth 4). This essentially "unknown" nature of trauma's hauntings echoes Levinas's emphasis on "[t]he unknown of death" ("Time and the Other" 40). Levinas's generally mournful rhetoric, as explained by Spargo and Jeannine Thyreen-Mizingou, affirms that ethical subjectivity is an essentially traumatic position; Levinas describes ethical responsibility to the other as "[t]he trauma of persecution" and the human "subject" as "a hostage" ("Substitution" 101). Levinas's account of subjectivity itself as traumatized suggests that traumatic experiences may share a similar structure with what he considers to be the ethical shape of human subjects.
Wilbur's description of the boy has resonances of traumatic elements that Levinas recognizes in subjectivity itself. The boy in Wilbur's poem imaginatively encounters death as he anticipates the snowman's physical suffering in the storm, which of course is a projection of his own physical suffering. The boy seems to confront death in this moment when he fearfully imagines the snowman dying in the violent storm—an idea which, as the second stanza exposes, is really fear inspired by his own vulnerability in the face of storm that would likely mean death for him if he were outdoors. The boy's experience seems traumatic in that it involves a lack of knowledge about himself and a confrontation with death.11 The boy's mourning itself may express the kind of mournful, traumatic position of a Levinasian subject. The absence of emotion may, however, be another kind of trauma. In "A Speech at a Ceremony," Wilbur suggests, "When we miss out on our emotional opportunities, we are upset at the moment of failure; and we are also nagged ever after by a sense of not having measured up, a sense of unfinished and unfinishable business" (Responses 92). Wilbur seems to speak to the kind of mourning of affect's absence that Dickinson and Frost portray. Together, Wilbur's, Dickinson's, and Frost's lyrics affirm that personhood and human subjectivity are integrally tied to emotion.
In The Healing Spirit of Haiku, David Rosen and Joel Weishaus affirm that traumatic psychological presences of death do not have to involve extreme physical suffering. In the section "Feeling Death," Rosen explains that he was "suffering from melancholy due to years of marital strife" to the point that he "felt like [he] was dying" (12). Death was psychological and emotionally present for Rosen, even though he was not deprived of physical necessities. Weishaus responds to Rosen's story with his own account of a near-death experience as he lay ill and alone "in a dilapidated farmhouse in the mountains northwest of Tokyo," believing he "was going to die" if he "feel asleep"
11. The boy's confrontation with death in "Boy at the Window" seems to offer a complementary image to that of another child's confrontation with death in "The Pardon." In this poem, the boy feels very much "afraid" when his dog dies, but can only mourn its death belatedly. Alan Sullivan recognizes this boy's problem of mourning as a paradox in which the boy "refuses to mourn" yet "in another sense... refuses to quit mourning" (88). Sullivan "conclude[s] that 'The Pardon' is an attempt to... atone for a failure" to mourn, which is what Wilbur sees as missing an emotional opportunity (88).
The boy in the window, on the other hand, does seem to actualize this emotional opportunity presented when he confronts the deaths of his snowman and himself.
(13). Rosen and Weishaus suggest that both physical and psychological suffering can evoke feelings of death, making death psychologically present for the individual.
Wilbur's boy seems to have a similar kind of psychological encounter with death through his personification of and grief for the snowman.
Carolyn Forché even suggests, via Walter Benjamin's theory of translating poetry, that "a poem is itself an event, a trauma that changes both a common language and an individual psyche," albeit "a specific kind of trauma" that "belong[s] to a different order of being from the trauma that marked its language in the first place" (33).
The poetry of witness in Forché's collection reminds readers of atrocities we might rather forget in order to resist "diseased complacency" with the oppressive status quo (32). By "bear[ing] witness to the ravages of our time"—like "exile, state censorship, political persecution, house arrest, torture, imprisonment, military occupation, warfare and assassination"—this poetry resists "the political" and "defends the individual against illegitimate forms of coercion" (Forché 45, 29). The poems perform such resistance by "attempt[ing] to mark, to change, to impress, but never to leave things as they are," challenging readers' motives and assumptions by changing language and challenging the linguistic "set of norms" that Judith Butler describes (Forché 33; Butler 23). While there may be specific kinds of trauma from "different order[s] of being," death, and perhaps trauma, can be psychologically present for people suffering affectively, such as Wilbur's boy and Rosen (Forché 33). Indeed Forché affirms that the very structure of poetry reflects that of traumatic events. We may encounter trauma physically, emotionally, and/or poetically; such traumatic experiences seem to reflect the inherently traumatic nature of Levinas's human subjectivity.
Indeed the emotions in Wilbur's poem that Edgecombe accuses of being merely sentimental may in fact contribute to a kind of traumatic effect that Wilbur's poem may have on us. Nadel explains that "Boy at the Window" reminds us of "the child's experience" of wonder, which "[a]dults become numb to...." (107). Wilbur achieves this effect in part by using "common speech" to convey complex ideas (Nadel 107). For example, the description "still, he is moved" sounds ordinary, but it "exposes" the "paradox" that "[t]he snowman is still—is unmoveable—yet he is moved" (Nadel 107).
The image of the snowman being brought to life as he is moved to tears invites us to view common concepts like being emotionally touched in new ways. Wilbur suggests that our ordinary experiences of being moved to tears are essential to being human. By challenging our assumptions in this way, Wilbur resists and perhaps even traumatizes our understanding of language and of what it means to be human, making us look with awe-struck eyes at what we may have once taken for granted.
Nadel uses Wilbur's poem "The Beautiful Changes" to describe this radical process of effecting wonder in the reader. In this poem, Wilbur writes "the beautiful changes/In such kind ways,/Wishing ever to sunder/Things and things' selves for a second finding, to lose/For a moment all that it touches back to wonder" ("Beautiful" 14Here the trauma of "sunder[ing]/Things and things' selves" leads, as trauma does, to loss, albeit a loss that gives rise to "wonder" (Wilbur, "Beautiful" 16-18). Wilbur characterizes beauty as something that is both a source of pleasure and, due to the change and loss it may invoke, a source of grief. Wilbur also challenges our assumptions, though, that loss is always only a source of mourning; "The Beautiful Changes" suggests that loss itself can be both a source of pleasurable "wonder" and also a source of grief. The aim to free ordinary language and assumptions "for a second finding" also emerges in "Boy at the Window" as Wilbur challenges our assumptions about language and being human ("Beautiful" 17).
"Boy at the Window" may challenge our assumptions about poetry via its metapoetic self-reflexivity that makes us self-reflexively aware of our own participation in the poem's personifications. Wilbur's emphasis on the poetic act of personification draws attention to the poem's own process of becoming. Personification is fundamental to the poem's very presence since the boy's personification of the snowman and his resulting grief are represented as the poem's exigence. J. M. Reibetanz recognizes this kind of self-reflexive gesture as integral to all of Wilbur's work; he claims "that Wilbur's special signature is to write reflexively, turning his poems back on themselves to reflect on their own ontology...." (609). By emphasizing how its "ontology" depends on personification, the poem invites us to recognize our own participation in that personification and in constituting the poem's meaningful presence. The poem's selfreflexivity thus invites us to adopt our own self-reflexive perspective from which we may recognize not only how our acts of personification contribute to the presence of the poem, but also how those acts contribute to the presence of humanity itself—to constituting others and ourselves as human subjects.
Such self-reflexivity invites readers to adopt not only a self-reflexive relation within themselves, but also a relation toward humanity. In these two respects, Wilbur's self-reflexivity thus seems to constitute an appeal to relation, to our desire (under girded by Levinasian responsibility) for relationships with others and with ourselves. This appeal to relation coincides with Wilbur's appeal to presence, conveyed by the almost hyperbolic presences of personhood in "Boy at the Window," affirming Levinas's connection between subjectivity and the self's responsible relation to the other. To the extent that these two appeals coincide, Wilbur seems to emphasize above all the appeal of the presence of relation to those facing loss and absence—as if feeling the presence of absence enhances our desire for affirmations of presence and of relation. While the effects of Wilbur's appeal to self-reflexivity may console readers in this sense, this selfreflexivity may also disturb readers insofar as it resists their assumptions about human relations by showing how humanity may be conveyed through personification. These self-reflexive valences of "Boy at the Window" also position this poem as itself a kind of witness—it is a poem that witnesses its own process of becoming and, in doing so, invites us to witness our own process of becoming human. By helping readers recognize or "remember" their human nature, the trauma of Wilbur's poem may itself also be a source of consolation.
In emphasizing our participation in the poem's personification, "Boy at the Window" reminds us of our own human agency. Like the boy creates a meaningful human form out of the snow, we are likewise capable of grasping, recognizing possibilities and creating meaningful, personal relationships by reading the poem.
Jeffrey Sychterz suggests that poetry in general may help survivors cope with unnarratable trauma since it may serve as a "pre-narrative communication" that allows survivors to express, to return to, and eventually to assimilate their fragmented, unknown traumatic experience (144). He associates the lyric genre with open wounds that have yet to cohere or "close" their "meaning" (Sychterz 144). The kind of sentimental images that Edgecombe critiques in "Boy at the Window" may express the kind of fragmented affects to which survivors must repeatedly return before they can narrate trauma.